In defence of the PowerBook 5300

PowerBook 5300

Whenever I stumble on some article listing Apple’s ‘worst Macs’ — sometimes called Road Apples, sometimes called lemons — even before looking at the list I already know that there’s one particular Mac I’m going to find: the PowerBook 5300. I won’t say that this PowerBook was completely issue-free, but I believe that its ‘lemon’ fame is in part undeserved.

Somehow, there’s a common denominator between the PowerBook 5300 and the Newton. Both got a bad reputation for what essentially was a non-issue, and from there it was just throwing the baby out with the bathwater. With the Newton it was the handwriting recognition (yes, it was not extraordinary in version 1.x of NewtonOS, but got amazingly better in version 2.x). With the PowerBook 5300 it was mainly the famous issue with the exploding batteries. As Dan Knight of Low End Mac writes (emphasis mine):

Originally designed to use LithIon batteries, Apple recalled the 5300 after some of the new batteries burst into flames on the assembly line. Not only was this an embarrassment to Apple, but the PowerBook 5300 became the butt of many jokes even though none of the troublesome batteries ever made it to market.

The PowerBook 5300 got included (obviously) in this recent article by Stephen Hackett, Some of Apple’s Lemons, which is otherwise a very well-informed and spot-on piece.

I strongly suspect that, among the tech writers who have written such lists of ‘worst Macs ever built’, there isn’t a single one of them who has actually used a PowerBook 5300 for as long as I have. I acquired my 5300ce second-hand in late 2001. It has a 117MHz PowerPC processor, 64MB of RAM and a 1.1GB hard drive. The original owner got it new in 1995 and took good care of it, to the point that when he sold it to me, the PowerBook was in mint condition after being in use for five full years. (Only the piece of plastic covering the ports on the back was missing, but I wouldn’t consider it a big deal.) The battery still held a 40-minute charge.

I’ve been using this PowerBook for the past 12 years without issues. Amazingly, the battery still holds enough charge to allow the PowerBook to complete the boot process.

Apart from my specific PowerBook 5300 unit, I have a certain expertise with Macs of this vintage because during the 1990s I did a lot of freelance Mac tech support, so I handled quite a number of these laptops.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the issues summarised by Hackett and review them one by one:

Cracks in the plastic casing.

I’ve witnessed this issue on very few PowerBook 5300 models. Comparatively, I’ve seen cracks in the plastic casing occurring much more frequently on clamshell iBooks, particularly around the small Apple logo beneath the screen; a problem possibly caused by tight hinges.

My PowerBook 5300 has started showing a small crack in the casing a couple of months ago, therefore 18 years after being manufactured. I’m willing to cut it some slack at this point, eh?

Vertical lines present on the display due to pinched ribbon cables in the hinges.

I’ve never seen this issue in person. I was told about one case by a fellow Mac consultant years ago. I personally saw this happen a lot with PowerBook 180 and 190 models, though.

Cracking hinges.

A few cases, yes, and in all of them the owner admitted to not treating the PowerBook with much care. I’m not denying the issue, of course, but let’s just say that in my career as a Mac tech support freelancer, I’ve seen more cracked hinges on Titanium G4 PowerBooks than on PowerBook 5300 units. Strange that the Titanium PowerBook G4 never gets a mention among the ‘road apples’ for that, no?

Poor performance due to the lack of a L2 cache.

Here I can only speak subjectively. At the time it was introduced (1995), the PowerBook 5300 wasn’t certainly as fast as some of the desktop Power Macintoshes of the same era (especially the 8500 and 9500 series), but as far as laptops went, it wasn’t exactly sluggish either. Having the maximum RAM installed (64MB) and upgrading to System 7.5.3 or 7.5.5 helped a lot, too. Theoretically, the PowerBook 5300 supports system software versions up to Mac OS 9.1, but in my experience you’ll want to stop at Mac OS 7.6.1 or 8.1, and I suggest going Mac OS 8.1 only if you have maxed the RAM.

Having used my PowerBook 5300 rather frequently over the past 12 years, I can say that, while it may not be the fastest pre-G3 PowerBook, it has proven to be a capable and reliable machine. For example, at the moment I’m writing this very article in BBEdit Lite 3.5.1 on the PowerBook 5300 itself, and there are a few apps opened in background as well:

  • Internet Explorer 5.1.7, opened on my main website.
  • Acrobat Reader 4, which by the way opens in less than 2 seconds and with two PDF documents open it only takes up less than 10MB of memory.
  • iCab 2.99, opened on Low End Mac’s website.
  • Graphic Converter 4.01, with a PICT file I needed to crop and convert to JPEG.

There are still 39MB of contiguous RAM available, and switching from an app to another is rather seamless, considering I’m on a 19 year-old machine using Mac OS 8.1.

Fires due to a bad Sony lithium ion batteries that overheated while charging.

As I emphasised at the beginning by quoting that bit written by Dan Knight, that problem happened internally during production and therefore did not impact users directly.

In conclusion, I’ve written about my personal experience with a PowerBook 5300 over 12 years of use and recalling the direct experience I had with these laptops as a freelancer doing Mac tech support in the 1990s, when these machines were new. I’m sure there are other experienced Mac users and technicians out there who will have different stories to tell; but from my perspective, I really can’t count the PowerBook 5300 among Apple’s lemons.


9 thoughts on “In defence of the PowerBook 5300

  1. I think one of the biggest flaws in that era was not the hardware itself, but the horrible warranty shipping containers Apple used. Sending a PowerBook G4 in for repairs, you could accomplish exactly the same thing by putting it in a burlap sack and beating it with a hammer for a while. (Of course, unlike sending it in, this would not fix the original issue.)

    So I’m assuming a lot of the problems systematic to the 5300 were actually caused by rough treatment in the post for warranty repairs.

  2. To anyone that’s not sure what I’m talking about: In this era, Apple would mail you PowerBook warranty return packaging. The idea was you’d put your PowerBook in it, put it in the mail, and a few weeks later get your repaired PowerBook back.

    The packaging I’m talking about was a normal, medium-weight cardboard box. In it were two pieces of cardboard designed to fit together like this: ][. Most of the facing surfaces was a stretchy sort of plastic. We used to have a lot of PowerBooks; I remembered being mildly surprised at the new packaging. I think I used it twice. Both times, instead of getting the PowerBook back we’d get… something else. Along with a letter from Apple repair explaining that we’d tried to fix an obviously physically abused PowerBook, and physical abuse wasn’t covered by warranty.

    I remember my PowerBook 540 got two corners blunted and BOTH hinges shattered. I never even tried it to see if it would still work. Luckily, we called Apple and begged them, and they eventually agreed with us and fixed it.

    This was right around the time of the PowerBook 5300, so it wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of them went through the same abuse.

  3. I briefly had a 5300cs in about 2002, an upgrade from my old 190. To be honest I never had any problems with the 5300cs, whereas the 190 by contrast was plagued with issues including a power jack that broke about four times, as I recall…

    The 1400 is better than them both in my opinion. I have one at the moment (upgraded to the max including a G3 card) and it’s a great laptop. Must see about rebuilding the battery one of these days!

  4. Greets.

    I used a Powerbook 5300 for a while on an internship year in DC several years ago. And while it was my writing/content creation machine, I found that it crashed and froze up often, to the point where I ended up getting a good price on a Pismo and never looked back.

    It was a similar deal to what iBook G3/G4s would experience with a bad graphic chips or something. Sometimes, the 5300 would work fine if I put pressure on a certain area of the laptop. As soon as I released pressure, the thing would freeze. Very, very frustrating really.

    I wanted to love the machine, but it was the most troublesome Mac I ever owned.

  5. Considering that you’re editing a PICT file in your story and the quality and resolution of the picture above, can I assume you took that picture with a QuickTake?!

  6. Sorry to disappoint, but the picture was actually taken with an iPhone. QuickTake cameras are still on my vintage wishlist!


  7. Oh, oh well. I played around with one when my middle school computer lab got one in the mid-90s. I loved how it just turned into a SCSI drive from which you could copy the pictures when you plugged it into the computer.

  8. I remember trying one at a trade fair eons ago and I was really fascinated because it was the first digital camera I had ever tried out. Sadly I couldn’t afford it at the time. Then I forgot about it, but when the vintage Mac bug bit me, I started looking for it again. Too bad that nowadays it’s either getting a broken one for a penny, or being asked ridiculous prices for a fully functional one. (“It’s vintage! It’s valuable!” is the song I keep hearing… Sigh.)

  9. I worked as a tech for an Apple authorized service provider in 1995, and to this day just saying “PowerBook 5300” makes me tense up a bit. They were horrible. Granted, you might get lucky and not have too many problems with one, like the guy who’s got 280,000 miles on his Pinto and still drives it to work everyday…but oh boy, this was a hard computer to love. I don’t remember how many repair extension authorization programs there were, but I recollect there were around four separate issues addressed. Often the machines were so hopelessly broken and the customers so angry that Apple would simply swap out these machines for brand new ones. It seemed like in the first several months of production the plastic cases was more-or-less defective and the computers would simply disintegrate and screens would snap off (there was also a problem with the screws used to hold the displays on the computer). It was horrible plastic with the texture and quality feel you’d get from melted down Happy Meal toys mixed with clay and sawdust, soft yet prone to cracking. They were weak, floppy, and spongy with the tactile sensation reminiscent of holding an infant: you could feel you needed to be very careful with it. A customer shouldn’t buy a computer with her hard saved dollars one week, then return it the next, sobbing, with the pieces in a bag.

    It wasn’t just that the plastic was horrible and the screens would snap off, etc. It was that they were slow, unreliable, cursed with anemic NiMH batteries, had nasty passive matrix screens on the cs models, depressingly slow video performance, power connectors that routinely failed, and ran System 7.5.2 for sufficiently generous definitions of “ran,” since that may have been the most tragically miserable version of an Apple operating system ever released.

    The PowerPC 603e processor at 100MHz (117 in the ce) might have been _almost_ tolerable if the entire system were native PowerPC, but it wasn’t. Fortunately Apple didn’t lard these systems up with games and family software the way they did with the 6200 series Performas (which were out at about the same time) so most users never had to deal with the systems not having enough RAM to run the bundled software…on the other hand they came with basically no bundled software, which might have burned a little bit since they sold for most of $3000.

    Now I’ll grant that in 1995 passive matrix color LCD technology still had a lot of room for improvement, but even considering the era, the passive matrix color screens on these models bad, with terrible color rendition. They were bad enough that the concept of uniformity never even had a chance to come up, and viewing angles rose not quite to the level of “nice thought.” The active matrix displays weren’t bad, unfortunately upgrading to an active matrix display added another $1000 or so to the already nearly stratospheric prices. The 5300ce model actually had a pretty nice screen, setting aside it’s $5000 or $6000 initial price tag (I can’t remember the actual price — I rarely worked the sale floor). In any event, these machine wheezed out pixels to their displays so slowly that a Mac IIci (released in 1989) wouldn’t have been too jealous of the graphics performance.

    Fortunately the small flimsy power connectors would snap off the motherboard pretty quickly putting the computer out of your shared misery. Unfortunately it usually wasn’t hard to solder them back on, so we did, a lot. The shop made a tidy profit on out-of-warranty repairs doing just that. In warranty we’d just replace the motherboard.

    Still, aside from being slow, expensive, notoriously unreliable, and poorly built they weren’t entirely horrible. It’s just that I can’t think of anything good about them.

    Our excess inventory went back to Apple, along with a frightfully high percentage of the systems we actually sold, where rumors suggested they were simply ground up. It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s what happened to them since we never heard of hide nor hair of them again, in sharp contrast to the Performas that seemed to reappear, zombie-like, as refurbs.

    I don’t miss these systems.

    Apple finally got around to replacing the 5300 series with the PowerBook 1400, having learned the right lessons. The 1400 was a staid, maybe even boring computer, but it was sturdy, crisp, smartly built, reliable, and more reasonably priced. Video performance still wasn’t great and the processor performance of the 603e still wasn’t much to write home about, but the power connector was sturdy, the keyboard was firm with a great key feel, and it was a heck of a lot less expensive than the 5300. I don’t think the PowerBook 1400 made many people cry. We saw almost none of them in our service shop, aside from a couple batches of refurbs with badly refurbished keyboards.

    Also on the topic of unloved computers…well, I loved the Newton. I had one in 1995 or 1996 and it was fantastic. It was rugged, had a lovely screen, spectacular battery life, smart software…it was great. The only problem was that it was a ahead of its time and the technology couldn’t quite deliver on the promise of the idea: it was too bulky, the very first version didn’t do handwriting recognition quite as well as it should have (fixed with some training and in later versions), and I always found backing up data and syncing a bit awkward. It probably wasn’t until a decade later that any handheld computer came close to the power, convenience, cleverness, and capability of the last Newton MessagePads.

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